Weekend Reading: September 19-21

September 19, 2014

Hello, War on the Rockers. It was an important, if fragmented, week in foreign affairs and international politics.  Our national leadership made a cautious commitment to deepen military engagement in the Middle East, to extend humanitarian aid and limited security assistance to West Africa and, perhaps unintentionally, to shift focus to the “long game” in Eastern Europe.  The best of this week’s foreign policy analysis is organized along four major themes.

The United States will deploy nearly twice as many military personnel to fight Ebola as it has sent to Iraq to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ the Islamic State.  The virus that originally appeared to pose only a limited threat to West Africa is now reported to have infected nearly 5,000 people across six countries (time-lapse graphic).  On Tuesday, President Obama announced that the United States will mount a significant, determined effort to combat the virus as part of “the largest international response in the history of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).”  This effort will likely include the formation of a joint military task-force under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the Commanding General of all U.S. Army forces in Africa.  In the week’s strongest justification for Operation United Assistance, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett explains in Foreign Policy that, “Nothing short of heroic, record-breaking mobilization is necessary at this late stage in the epidemic. Without it, I am prepared to predict that by Christmas, there could be up to 250, 000 people cumulatively infected in West Africa.”

Although the tactical task ‘destroy’ suggests otherwise, “The American forces do not and will not have a combat mission [in Iraq]”, President Obama told troops at MacDill Air Force Base on Wednesday.  This apparent contradiction sparked an ongoing conversation about whether or not we are actually at war with the Islamic State. Moreover, can this conflict be won with airpower and precision targeting operations alone? In a detailed piece for The Daily Beast, former U.S. Army officer Daniel L. Lewis contends that airstrikes are merely a tactic; the United States must isolate the Islamic State economically, financially, and geographically, while eroding its support from within.  Gary Anderson echoes this sentiment in Small Wars Journal with “If You Liked Vietnam, You’ll Love the War with the Islamic State.”  For now, the so-called “covert Commander-in-Chief’s” bid for success in this sort-of war against Islamic extremists will depend on his ability to leverage regional military capabilities in a coalition, likely without the over support of Iran.  In an exclusive interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn learns Iran does not yet believe the nascent coalition is pursuing a serious policy in the region.  Quartz’s Bobby Ghosh outlines what these nations bring, or don’t bring, to the fight in Iraq.

University of Chicago Professor Jerry Coyne takes a deeper look at the religious foundation of the Islamic State in his New Republic article: “If ISIS is Not Islamic, then the Inquisition Was Not Catholic.” A tacit comparison between the Islamic State’s offensive in the Middle East and the centuries-long Inquisition may give some readers pause. However, Vox’s Zach Beauchamp gives us three compelling reasons why “we’re not going to see an end to this in our lifetime.”

Want more on ISIL?

Despite NATO participation in a military exercise in Lviv, Russia is getting exactly what it wants in eastern Ukraine.  Ukrainian soldiers reportedly maintain “full combat readiness” in Donetsk – more than 700 miles east of NATO military Exercise Rapid Trident – as pro-Russian separatists continue sporadic shelling around the government-held airport.  Although the United States contributed a 200-soldier contingent to the exercise, Stratfor’s Robert Kaplan opines that the President’s war footing against the Islamic State could detract from his ability to counter Putin’s advances in Eastern Europe.  Writing for New Republic, Linda Kinstler goes so far as to say that the “frozen conflict” Russia has been angling for in Ukraine has already begun.  The rapid-fire concessions of President Petro Poroshenko’s regime make the new Ukrainian government all too closely resemble the one it replaced.

This Week’s ‘Three Key Takeaways’ from WOTR’s Contributors:

“The administration’s ‘no boots [on the ground]’ mantra works against international security by telling adversaries and friends alike what the United States is not prepared to do. “No boots” declarations are akin to sitting down at a poker table and telling opponents around the table, “Hey guys, I’ve got no aces or face cards in my hand!” This principle, ludicrous at the poker table, is just as unlikely to yield success on the fields on which war is waged and peace is built, because it violates a common sense rule: Never tell adversaries what you are planning or not planning. Always keep them guessing, uncertain, insecure, anxious, hedging, and vulnerable.” – Richard Russell in “The ‘No Boots on the Ground’ Mantra is Strategic Foolishness”

“An ages-old military dictum known as the “KISS” principle warns wartime planners to “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” Complexity is all too often the enemy of success. […] Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s newly announced strategy to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) severely violates this principle.” – J. Michael Barrett in “To Defeat ISIS, Keep it Simple”

“The statistic is often given that 99 percent of Americans do not know the horror of the battlefield. Gen. John Allen reflected that during his tenure as commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), 561 Americans died in Afghanistan, and the average age of those killed showed that many were just 9 or 10 years old when the war started. Mike Boetther called them “A new second greatest generation of Americans! America has to be the shining light; we have been given a great gift which comes with sacrifice.” – David Mattingly in The Hornet’s Nest: Our Longest War and the Americans who Fought It”


Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence